Yesterday, we reported about a plan from Emirates to ‘downgrade’ some of their serving Business and First Class cabin crew into the next lower cabin. So, for example, a number of Business Class crew will have to work in Economy for a month at a time and First Class crew will be expected to work in Business Class.
The move seems like a plan from Emirates to do ‘more with less‘ – effectively redeploying cabin crew into areas that are currently understaffed without taking on any more crew.
But since we published our original article, we’ve received enquiries asking why Emirates don’t shake things up even more. The problem it seems is that Emirates is pretty much unique in the way it deploys staff in different cabins onboard its aircraft.
As we pointed out yesterday, a new cabin recruit will start in Economy Class and stays in that cabin until a position becomes available in Business Class. The same is true for progression from Business to First Class. It’s incredibly rare for cabin crew who have attained the higher grade to work ‘down a cabin’ although for the infamous “operational reasons” it is allowed and does happen on occasion.
Although this practice has been common in the Middle East, it’s an almost unheard of way of deploying cabin crew at other airlines around the world. Cabin crew at carriers in Europe and North America would be astounded to think that they might be forced to work in just one cabin for years at a time.
So while the strict hierarchal structure has always been the way at Emirates, maybe it’s time for the airline to rethink their approach. Here are five reasons why the status quo is a bad thing:
1. It’s bad for Crew Resource Management (CRM)
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of this term – it’s basically aviation speak for the way in which crew communicate with one another, as well as all the ‘human factors’ that can affect your judgements and actions.
It was originally designed for pilots but has been widely adopted by many airlines for improving communication amongst all their onboard staff. The thinking goes that better communication = improved safety, so breaking down any barriers to communication is a very good thing.
But what if your cabin crew remain in the ‘silos’ of their rank? Economy Class cabin crew only talk to their fellow Economy crew, Business Class crew only talk to their same ranking colleagues and so on.
And it’s even worse on the majority of Emirates A380’s where Economy Class occupies the entire main deck – if you worked in Business or First Class, why would you ever bother to go downstairs? Yes, all the crew should be working as one team but does it happen in reality?
2. It’s difficult to manage changes in demand
So you’ve got a fully booked Business Class cabin but Economy is only one-third full. Of course, the cabin crew in Economy finish their service in next to no time, while their colleagues in Business Class are stressed and it’s starting to show.
It would make sense to get some staff in Economy to help their colleagues out – but they haven’t been trained in the Business Class service. They have no idea where anything is and don’t have a clue what to do.
And it’s not only the staff who suffer in this scenario. Expect the passenger experience to go downhill as well.
3. It’s a nightmare for the scheduling department
This is the exact situation Emirates is now trying to deal with. You’re understaffed in Economy but overstaffed in Business and First Class. Yet this could be easily avoided if your cabin crew could work in the premium cabins as well as Economy (and vice versa).
Of course, we’re not suggesting that a new recruit is going to be thrown into the First Class cabin. All full-service airlines want to have experienced, appropriately trained cabin crew to provide passengers in their First Class cabin a premium experience. But that shouldn’t mean being First Class trained means you only ever work in that cabin – forever!
Think how hard it must be for the scheduling team trying to roster staff to work in these cabins – you’ve got 23,000 cabin crew in total but then you have to break down that number into three separate groups. Suddenly the task gets a lot harder.
4. It’s really bad for retaining experience
In November, the first batch of downgraded cabin crew will begin their month-long assignments. The question is, when was the last time they worked in that class of travel? Will they have any idea how the service should be conducted?
Okay, so they can provide an amazing First Class service but they might initially struggle with the Economy service. Even working in a different part of the aircraft could pose a safety risk if they haven’t worked that cabin in years.
By working in different cabins throughout their careers, cabin crew retain the knowledge and experience which is vital for both service and safety. It’s that simple.
5. It doesn’t do morale any favours
Just imagine being stuck in Economy for up to three years. There’s no chance of progression, you’re bored, tired and fed up. Now imagine how that low-morale is going to be projected on passengers.
That’s exactly what’s happening at Emirates at the moment – having cross-trained staff would instantly relieve the boredom and monotony. Some Economy Class crew have been in their roles for at least three years and the same applies to cabin crew working in other classes as well.
Again, there’s been no update from Emirates on how long their new staffing policy might last. Judging by how the airline has managed similar incidents in the past, we don’t expect senior executives to change their rank structure – but we certainly hope they do. For the welfare and career progression of cabin crew, for an improved passenger experience and most importantly, for safety.